Weber State’s meeting with Western Illinois is viewed widely as the best matchup in the first round of the FCS playoffs. The way the 24-team tournament is seeded, Saturday’s winner at Stewart Stadium in Ogden will have a good chance of beating No. 8 Southern Utah next weekend and advancing to the quarterfinals.
That’s another way of saying that each team received a tough first-round draw after being ranked in the top 10 nationally.
“If you’re going to make a run through the playoffs, you’re going to have to play really hard teams,” Weber State coach Jay Hill said.
Western Illinois fits that description. The Leathernecks’ three losses have come to North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State — “some of the elite teams in the country,” Hill said. WIU took a 38-20 victory at Northern Arizona, the Big Sky Conference’s third-place finisher, in September.
The Wildcats’ only losses have been at California, after WSU led its Pac-12 opponent in the fourth quarter, and to SUU after quarterback Stefan Cantwell was injured.
Weber State tied for the Big Sky championship with SUU, which earned the Big Sky’s automatic berth via that 32-16 victory in Ogden in October. The Wildcats are eager to earn a rematch with SUU in Cedar City, but their conference-leading defense will be tested by Western Illinois.
To advance, the Wildcats will have to perform better than in last November’s 45-14 loss at Chattanooga in the first round. “This team is much more mature. … Hopefully, we handle this experience much better than we did last year,” Hill said.
That’s something they’ve talked about for a long time. Cornerback Taron Johnson said during the Big Sky Football Kickoff in Park City in July that the 2016 Wildcats were too satisfied merely to make the playoffs and the current team intended to do more. It helps that WSU is hosting a playoff game for the first time in the program’s history.
WESTERN ILLINOIS AT WEBER STATE <br>Kickoff • 2 p.m. <br>TV • ESPN3 <br>Radio • 1430 AM <br>Records • WIU 8-3; WSU 9-2 <br>Series • WIU leads, 2-0 <br>Last meeting • WIU won 21-19 (1976) <br>About the Leathernecks • Quarterback Sean McGuire has passed for 2,650 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. … WIU finished fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference behind two teams that received first-round byes in the FCS playoff and another that is hosting a game Saturday. … Coach Charlie Fisher is 14-8 in two seasons. <br>About the Wildcats • Weber State is making its sixth playoff appearance. … The Wildcats had 17 players receive All-Big Sky Conference honors, including eight first-team selections. Cornerback Taron Johnson was named the defensive player of the year. … Coach Jay Hill is 24-22 in four seasons after starting 2-12. … Of WSU’s 22 offensive and defensive starters, 13 are Utah products.